By Jack Petree
“For decades the lack of an economically viable technology for treating the hundreds of millions of tons of wood fiber left in the forest after harvest, after treatment for catastrophic fire reductions, and as the result of the devastations of insect and weather, has been seen in the forest products industry as an almost insurmountable impediment to achieving the highest and best use of the entirety of our world’s forest resource,” says Anders Ragnarsson, founder of Continental Biomass Industries (and owner until its sale to Terex in 2015).
“That technological gap has stifled efforts to optimize the forest’s ability to sequester greenhouse gasses, reduced our ability to accomplish effective forest health and catastrophic wildfire reductions, and harmed the economic wellbeing of our communities for far too long.”
Ragnarsson points out the U.S. Forest Service has long been aware of the significant potential carbonized wood fiber (biochar) has in resolving the environmental, economic, and social problems presented by an excess of wood fiber remaining after a harvest or other forest treatment.
Ragnarsson explains, “The challenges, as put forward nearly ten years ago in a presentation by forest service professionals [Can Portable Pyrolysis Units Make Biomass Utilization Affordable While Using Bio-Char to Enhance Soil Productivity and Sequester Carbon?] and in numerous forest service studies since have been seen as revolving around the low value of fiber remaining after harvest or other treatments, combined with the high costs involved in transporting that fiber from the woods.”
He adds, “As a backdrop to all that, many inside and outside the forest service have concerns about removing too many nutrients from the forest. Forest service studies demonstrate the likely value biochar has both as a salable product and as a soil amendment capable of significantly enhancing forest health after fiber has been removed from that forest.”
Mobile Biochar Manufacturing System
After the sale of Continental Biomass Industries, Ragnarsson set out to find solutions to the long-standing issues presented by an overwhelming volume of post-harvest wood fiber that is largely underutilized or simply wasted due to lack of an appropriate technology. The result, he says, was the creation of the first truly mobile biochar manufacturing system capable of producing commercial quantities of biochar at the site of a harvest or forest treatment operation.
According to Matt O’Connor, director of Sales and Marketing at ROI, the company Ragnarsson founded to market his system, “Small-scale biochar manufacture has been practiced, with great results reported and demonstrated, in the forests and on the farms of America for years as farmers and woodlot owners have used the char to enhance forest and farm soils as well as to reduce the environmental impacts associated with farming. The roadblocks to full use of potentially valuable forest residues have always been scale and transportability.”
Ragnarsson’s answer to this problem is the Carbonator, a mobile technology that can convert 15-20 tons of fiber per hour into biochar on-site because it is easily transportable. It can be delivered on a lowboy in the same way any other piece of heavy machinery would be moved to a location.
O’Connor continues, “Once on-site, the machine is capable of independently moving from slash pile to slash pile even on moderately sloped ground. For the first time, to our knowledge, commercially viable quantities of an increasingly valuable wood product can be manufactured at the site of the raw material to the benefit of both the environment and the future forest.”
Biochar is created utilizing air curtain technology, a long-proven industry standard. A forced air ‘curtain’ traps particulates. Inside, smoke in an open burn recirculates and continuously reburns those particulates, nearly eliminating visible evidence of emissions from the combustion process.
In addition to the ability to create a product with considerable value, the Carbonator provides a number of advantages with important economic benefits to landowners and harvesting contractors.
“The Carbonator is designed to accept trees, brush, stumps, and other wood debris without grinding or chipping,” says O’Connor. “Throughput rates do depend a bit on the overall size of the feedstock, so with larger diameter materials like stumps or logs it’s best to split or crack the debris to increase the surface area.”
Carbonization can begin almost immediately after a harvest, a potentially significant savings in the cost of transport as the same machines used to accomplish the harvest can be turned to feed the Carbonator.
“Freshly fallen or piled for an extended period of time to dry; the species of tree; soft or hard wood; all of this has very little if any bearing on the machine’s performance,” O’Connor says. “Folks who’ve seen the machine convert construction and demolition debris to biochar make comments like, ‘Wow, this thing goes through pallets faster than I can feed it.’ They often think it’s the very dry material. Moisture content does indeed make a bit of a difference, but the real contributor to the speed of the conversion from feedstock to biochar is the surface area of the feedstock.”
Another potential economic benefit O’Connor points out comes from the fact that the Carbonator can generally be operated during fire season, allowing a contractor unable to harvest to keep employees and equipment busy when they might otherwise be idle. “A clear area free from combustible materials is suggested and required. Having a water truck on-site for wetting the surrounding area periodically is also advised and may be required. Like any piece of equipment, processing locations and situational awareness must play a role.”
According to O’Connor, response to the potential of a truly mobile biochar system has been swift and enthusiastic. The company’s recent demonstration tour in the west drew hundreds of interested legislators, government officials, waste disposal experts, and interested citizen activists. “The level of interest far exceeded expectations,” says O’Connor.
“Mobile biochar production systems have the potential to revolutionize the forest products industry from the forest floor to the secondary wood products sector,” O’Connor continues. “A burgeoning marketplace for biochar means a whole new profit center for the industry is opening up.”
He adds, “The ability to convert a largely wasted fiber source into commercial volumes of a valued product with hugely positive, proven implications for the environment promises to provide immense social and economic benefits to the industry.”
There is still much to learn about biochar and its potential uses; however, sufficient knowledge already exists in the form of significant research and interest in the product on the part of potential users to assure the biochar industry is one the forest products that professionals who wish to stay on the cutting edge of profitability must track into the future.
ON THE COVER
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